Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has resisted requests from some of his state’s mayors to take statewide measures to combat COVID-19, such as a mask mandate and the power to place local restrictions.
The day before Florida recorded its 1 millionth case, DeSantis told reporters that states in lockdown mode are doing worse than Florida.
“So I hear people say, ‘Oh, well, Florida is open and they have increased cases,” DeSantis said on November 30th. “Well, OK, the states that are banned are growing twice as fast as we are. If you look at the per capita cases, you see a lot of these states that have schools closed, shops closed, and some of them even placing orders for staying at home there, a huge increase in these cases. “
We have verified DeSantis’ claim that “locked states are growing twice as fast as we are”. We found that Florida is doing reasonably well right now, but DeSantis has overstated the correlation between cases and lockout rules. Other factors beyond a state’s rules are likely to affect COVID-19 rates.
The state of lockdowns across the country
To reduce the spread of the virus, states have put various restrictions in place – and then sometimes relaxed or lifted them – including masked mandates, restaurant capacity restrictions, and bans on large gatherings.
DeSantis, a Republican, issued an order on Sept. 25 that lifted restrictions on businesses in general and suspended fines for those who did not comply. While many shops and restaurants have put their own masking and distancing rules in place, the Floridians have still packed into some bars and other hangouts.
In November, cases increased in Florida, but unlike some other governors, DeSantis said he would not be placing new mandates.
Reviewing the evidence
We asked Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for DeSantis, for evidence to explain the governor’s claim that cases are increasing twice as fast in states that are under lockdown as in Florida.
Piccolo cited a state-to-state analysis by the New York Times, updated Nov. 30, showing which states have companies that are mostly closed, which have no restrictions, and which are “mixed”. The Times also published a map of states with orders or notices for staying at home.
Piccolo then used the Covid Act Now website to calculate the number of cases and hospitalizations per 100,000 residents in some states with stricter restrictions.
We checked the numbers ourselves. We focused on the states where the Times had the toughest restrictions on businesses or residents as of November 30th, and those where both businesses and residents had moderate levels of restrictions. A total of 10 states qualified for this group of states with high restrictions related to coronaviruses. (Our list of 10 states was slightly different from Piccolo’s, but not significantly.)
By and large, we found that Florida’s record was cheap at least in early December compared to most states across the country, including those with more stringent restrictions. Especially when comparing coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations per capita, Florida was among the best, and better than some of the more regulated states. (Click the table to see separate comparisons for cases, deaths, and hospitalizations.)
Here is a link to an interactive diagram.
So DeSantis has something to say. However, there are also a few important caveats.
First, some of the more regulated states fared better than Florida. For example, Oregon, Washington state, and California had fewer coronavirus deaths per capita than Florida, while Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington state had lower hospitalization rates.
Second, DeSantis’ reference to “double the rate” undermines the strength of his reasoning. Of the 10 states with the strictest rules, only about half had cases per capita, deaths and hospitalizations that were twice the rate in Florida.
Third, Florida may be doing better than many other states in the fight against coronavirus, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a lack of restrictions on getting better coronavirus statistics.
The graph below shows 27 states, including Florida, that the New York Times analysis found that COVID-19 rules are the least restrictive for businesses and residents.
Florida again does well compared to the other states in terms of cases, deaths, and hospital stays. But many of the states that followed similarly low restrictions as Florida had far worse results.
We found that 12 of the low-restriction states had double the case rate in Florida, eight had double the death rate, and nine had double the hospitalization rate. Five states had double the Florida rate for each of the three statistics – South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and Indiana – and another five states had double the Florida rate for two statistics.
It’s also important to note that some states added or tightened restrictions in November, making it difficult to assess the impact so far.
Why might Florida do relatively well?
A comparison with other lightly regulated states suggests that Florida does relatively well for reasons other than its low regulation policy.
For example, Florida’s weather makes it easy for residents to eat and gather outdoors, even at this time of year. Scientists have generally said that the virus is less likely to get from person to person outdoors than in confined indoor spaces.
“I think it’s reasonable to say that the warmer weather certainly contributes to Florida’s relative success,” said Brooke Nichols, an infectious disease mathematical modeler at Boston University School of Public Health. “It’s no longer incredibly hot, which makes an indoor gathering necessary for air conditioning, but not too cold for people to gather indoors to generate heat.”
In addition, it is difficult to pinpoint a cause: is it loose regulation that helps reduce infection rates, or is it the low infection rates that allow for looser regulations?
Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county, saw an increase in cases after the abolition of mitigation strategies, said Mary Jo Trepka, chair of the epidemiology department at Florida International University.
“We don’t know how bad it will be,” said Trepka.
It’s also important to remember that states are not closed jurisdictions. For much of the pandemic, Florida was open to tourists, meaning we don’t know if coronavirus transmission in Florida will increase infections in other states after those tourists return home, said Marissa Levine, a public health professor from the University of South Florida.
Jason L. Salemi, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, warns that the success DeSantis claims compares only to other states, and that cases and hospitalizations have increased in recent weeks. “It shows me how serious the situation is across the country,” he said.
DeSantis said, “The states that are locked are growing twice as fast as we are” in Florida.
There are currently relatively few cases of coronavirus, death, and hospitalization in Florida. However, the link between these statistics and Florida’s slight restrictions on businesses and residents is less clear than what DeSantis suggests.
Only about half of the top 10 most strictly regulated states had cases, deaths, and hospitalizations twice as high as Florida’s – DeSantis’ benchmark.
Meanwhile, numerous other states that followed the same less restrictive policies as Florida have fared far worse than Florida. This suggests that factors other than rules of conduct such as warm weather may play a role in keeping coronavirus infections relatively low in Florida.
We rate the statement as half true.